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Murals commemorating The Troubles in Belfast
Murals commemorating The Troubles in Belfast
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

Experts say UK government's plans for 'official' Troubles history would be 'almost impossible'

The proposal was first reported last weekend.
Nov 20th 2021, 8:00 PM 30,294 25

UK GOVERNMENT PLANS to commission an ‘official’ history of the Troubles have been described by academics as an “almost impossible” task and part of a “worrying trend” of politicising issues in Northern Ireland.

Last week, the Daily Telegraph reported that the British Government, under plans devised by the Northern Ireland Office, was considering asking a number of independent historians to write an official history of the conflict.

It was reported that the history would start in the 1960s and conclude with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

The plans were said to be part of the wider package of legacy proposals by NI Secretary Brandon Lewis and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

More than 3,000 people died and tens of thousands more were injured during the 30-year sectarian conflict. British state security forces were involved throughout, and were involved in the deaths of over 300 people, while also suffering around 1,400 casualties.

The Daily Telegraph suggested that plans for the ‘official’ history were drawn up in response to fears that “IRA supporters are rewriting history” and that the narrative would focus on the role of the British Government and Army during the Troubles.

It further reported that a group of historians would be appointed by the British government “on privy council terms” to carry out the project, which is expected to take a number of years.

However, experts have criticised the proposal and questioned whether attempts by the UK to ‘officially’ produce a history of the conflict was appropriate.

Colin Harvey, Professor of Human Rights at Queens University Belfast, said he believed that such a history would undermine principles in the Stormont House Agreement about how the legacy of the Troubles should be dealt with. 

“My view is that it just lacks all credibility, through the way it’s been framed and approached; it’s part of a really quite worrying trend,” he told The Journal.

“We’re seeing, from this government, a really quite partisan politicisation of a range of issues. People forget there’s there’s an obligation in the Good Friday Agreement of rigorous impartiality, and this government just seems to have abandoned that.”

Harvey pointed to proposals by the UK Government to create an amnesty for Troubles-related crimes, including the prosecution of British soldiers, as being part of a wider trend of politicising the Troubles.

“The British were protagonists in the conflict. They were participants in conflict. And it seems like for the current British government, the truth hurts: they don’t like what’s emerging about the role of the British state,” he added.

“This seems to many people in Northern Ireland like they’re just trying to promote their own narrative.”

Historians have also expressed scepticism about the idea that such an account of the Troubles could even be produced.

Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD Diarmaid Ferriter was among those to voice his opposition to the idea this week, telling BBC Northern Ireland’s The View programme on Thursday that he would say “get stuffed” were he (hypothetically) asked to contribute.

“I would be very reluctant to be drawn into an official authorised history. I just think that it’s so loaded,” he said.

Dr Laura McAtackney, a historical archaeologist and heritage researcher at Aarhus University, similarly noted how such a project would be problematic.

As someone who previously worked as an archivist in Northern Ireland’s Public Record Office, she explained that there would be practical difficulties in sourcing certain types of information.

“I think that’s an issue in terms of how you do this, and particularly with the discipline of history,” she said.

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“Some historians believe there’s a sanctity in archives, but there’s very selective retention.  We don’t know what files all the departments had.

“We only usually retain something like five to ten per cent [for archiving], and that means trying to guess at a certain point in time what might be useful or interesting in 20 years’, 50 years’ or 100 years’ time.”

However, she said that historians seeking to write an ‘official’ history would also have to use as sources the perspectives of people who were active during the conflict and those who experienced it.

McAtackney said that there are many ways to engage with a contemporary society, which is a different process to engaging with a point in time that was a century or more ago.

“I do have questions whether you could ever do a contemporary history like this in an objective way, which is still in living experience,” McAtackney said.

“I don’t think it’s really possible, because you have to take certain positions on the role of the State, as well as different actors and the people who lived through it, and those perspectives are going to shape how you write that history.

“To write a book on the history of the Troubles would just be almost impossible to do at this point in time. Even if it was multi-authored. There’s just too many different perspectives, too many different sources and methods.”

A UK Government spokesperson told The Journal that the government was “committed to bringing forward a package of measures to deal with the legacy of the Troubles that focuses on information recovery, so that families can know what happened to their loved ones, and promotes reconciliation, so all communities in Northern Ireland can move forward”.

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Stephen McDermott

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